Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming

New York: Doubleday, 2008, pp. 278.

In 2008 Sebastian Faulks, "writing as Ian Fleming," published Devil May Care, a James Bond novel which is novel in its picking up exactly where Ian Fleming left off. Taking place a year and a half after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun (1965), the book informs us that since his battle with Francisco Scaramanga, Bond has been manning a desk at "Universal Exports," part of a "phased return" to the service. Naturally, M judges him ready to go back to his old assignments early in the novel, charging him with investigating a Dr. Julius Gorner, a villainous industrialist who is believed to be involved in a Soviet scheme to flood Britain with drugs – and perhaps, something more than that.

The results of Faulks' effort are mixed. To his credit, Faulks' gets the tone and "feel" of Fleming's writing right for the most part. He also derives a good deal of interest out of the retro context. There is some amusement in seeing the Bond of the novels plunged into Swinging London, which is making itself felt in the unlikeliest of places – a conversation with his housekeeper May in which she tells him about the drug charges against the Rolling Stones, the news from Moneypenny that M has taken up yoga. (Remember, Fleming's Bond was a creation of the '50s, not the '60s.)

Faulks' choice of contemporaneous Iran for the principal scene of the action added to its interest. Not only does it take Bond to a part of the world we haven't seen him in before (with few exceptions, Fleming stuck with the United States, the Caribbean and West European countries as his settings), but it helps reinforce the feel of another era, given how much the depiction of the country differs from what is routine in today's thrillers. It is hardly nuanced or deep, and true to the book's "retro" approach more than a few of the remarks the characters make will strike attentive readers as ignorant and bigoted – but the prejudices are different, and the whole may come as something of a shock to those who imagine Iranian history to have begun in 1979, and the Middle East to have never been anything but a cauldron of fundamentalist insanity and homicidal prudery. Call it the more complex "Orientalism" of an earlier period, when these parts of the world were imagined as colorful, extravagant and sensual, as well as decadent and backward – an object of fantasy as well as nightmare, and a much more suitable scene for James Bondian adventure than it might seem today (the episode in the Paradise Club striking in this respect).

The selection of this setting has yet another advantage, namely the Persian Gulf's having been one of the last scenes where Britain played an independent military role (these were the last years before the end of Britain's commitments "east of Suez"), enabling Faulks to center the story on British action without stretching plausibility too far. To his credit, he proves reasonably adroit in developing his plot to this end.

Still, the weaknesses are not minor ones. While Faulks captures the feel of Fleming's writing, he does not capture the spark it had at its best, and as a thriller the book is a letdown. The inclusion of an assassination attempt on Bond before he even leaves London struck me as a clumsy attempt to correct for the slow start typical of Fleming's novels. Faulks also fails to get full use out of the promising bits of atompunk he introduces, which include an ekranoplan. (Indeed, his prose tends to falter when dealing with the action and techno-thriller bits, a telling instance his description of a Soviet Mi-8 helicopter as "classic." That helicopter can be regarded as classic now, but no one would have described it as that in the 1960s, when it was new gear.) The same goes for his dispatch of Bond behind the Iron Curtain for the first time in the history of the series (the unseen events between You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun apart), but ends up feeling perfunctory.

At the same time, if the idea of sending Bond back to the 1960s was to free him from the constraints of political correctness in the manner of Mad Men, then the novel doesn't quite work on that score, Bond's hedonistic flair clearly lacking. (Early in the tale, Bond actually turns down an attractive woman's offer to go up to her room.) The appearance of a female double-o in the story, something I have a hard time picturing Fleming's M (or Bond for that matter) accepting, looks like a concession to twenty-first century attitudes, much more in line with the later screen Bond girls than anything Fleming wrote.

Where Faulks hews closer to Fleming's precedent, he tends to seem plainly derivative, certainly in his creation of Gorner. He clearly owes much - too much - to Moonraker's Hugo Drax, another physically deformed continental who came away from his schooling in England feeling humiliated and hateful, who in World War II fought for the Nazis and after becoming a self-made tycoon, now works with the Soviets to pursue a personal vendetta against Britain, to culminate in a high-tech blow against the country, using means we have certainly seen before in Fleming's books. The repetition is to diminishing returns, and it does not help that this villain's particular scheme is overly complex, diffusing the action and tension, which makes for a poor contrast with the admirable compactness of the Fleming novels.

The result is a book I found consistently readable, with quite a few bits that were better than that, but in the end left a lot to be desired as a continuation of Fleming's series.

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